January 2009
Forage Matters

Teff-Old Crop/New Use

Occasionally a crop comes onto the forage scene in the United States few people here are familiar with. This is the case with teff, also sometimes called summer lovegrass, which is a warm-season annual grass native to Ethiopia. It is closely related to the warm-season perennial grass, weeping lovegrass, which is sometimes planted in Alabama, but is most widely grown in Oklahoma and nearby states. The primary use of teff on a worldwide basis is as a grain crop, but in recent years some forage varieties have been developed and made commercially available in the United States. This article is not necessarily aimed at promoting this crop, but rather to be informational.

Teff is a quick-growing grass with thin stems and narrow leaves. The seed are extremely small, numbering approximately 1.3 million per pound. Teff is quite sensitive to cold weather and should not be seeded until after the last threat of frost has past and soil temperatures are at least 55 to 60o F. It is normally planted into a smooth, level, prepared seedbed. Seeding rates vary from four to six pounds per acre for raw seed, to eight to ten pounds for coated seed. Because of the small seed size, planting depth should be about an 1/8 to 1/4 inch. A good way to plant the seed is by broadcasting (perhaps after having been mixed with some inert material to increase the volume) followed by cultipacking, or by planting with a cultipacker-seeder.

Applying too much nitrogen to this grass can increase the likelihood of lodging, to which it is rather susceptible anyway. It is probably best to apply no more than 30 to 50 units of nitrogen per acre at establishment with a similar amount applied after each harvest up to September 1. Phosphorus and potassium needs are similar to those of other warm-season annual grasses like millets or sorghum/sudan hybrids.

Like many summer annual grasses, teff has the potential of making rapid growth. It is possible for it to be ready to harvest for hay within six or seven weeks after planting. With adequate rainfall, a planting made in May should allow three or more cuttings in Alabama. Season-long dry matter yield of teff is potentially five tons or more per acre, but two to four tons per acre is more realistic.

Teff seems to be better suited for hay than for pasture as it is reportedly sensitive to trampling damage. Also, animals may pull up the rather shallow-rooted plants when they graze. However, as mentioned earlier, a potential problem when growing it for hay or haylage is it lodges rather easily. Forage quality of teff is good, with protein content of appropriately fertilized forage harvested at hay stage often being 12 to 16 percent crude protein. Livestock readily eat the forage unless it is harvested late and is overly mature.

Teff as a forage crop is not likely to revolutionize Alabama agriculture. However, it is another forage option and may be useful on some farms. To date, most of the forage teff planted in the United States has been done by commercial hay producers who are growing it for the horse market.

Don Ball is an Extension Forage Crop Agronomist with Auburn University.